Vox Nova is pleased to share a guest post by Greg Walgenbach. He is responding to this statement from the Biden Whitehouse.
Yesterday the newly elected Biden-Harris Administration put out a polarizing statement on the 48th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade
Given how divided the nation is on the subject of abortion, specifically its legalization, I’d like to offer some brief comments as a Catholic Christian (though I don’t believe agreement with my remarks here necessarily requires those convictions) on what I think the statement gets right and what it gets wrong. I want also to recognize up front that as 1 in every 4-5 women undergo an abortion at some point in their lives this issue is personal, painful, and touches many in a way that requires recognition and space for listening, mourning, healing, and accompanying one another with empathy.
Before getting to what’s right and what’s wrong, however, I want to point out what’s odd: the statement is odd in that it is about the infamous Supreme Court decision on so-called abortion rights but it does not use the word ‘abortion’ at all. Instead, it refers to “reproductive health care, including the right to choose,” “access to care,” and “access to health care.”
This is not unique to the new administration but is following a trend years in the making of substituting euphemisms beginning with “choice” and “termination of pregnancy” and recently culminating in the oxymoron (when referring to procured abortions) “abortion care.”
The term “abortion” means “to miscarry in giving birth,” from the Latin abortus, past participle of aboriri “to miscarry, be aborted, fail, disappear, pass away,” a compound word used in Latin for deaths, miscarriages, sunsets, etc., which according to OED is from ab, here as “amiss” (see ab-), + stem of oriri “appear, be born, arise,” from PIE *heri- “to rise” or *er- (1) “move, set in motion.”
This definition tracks the two kinds of abortions, procured or spontaneous. The latter, spontaneous abortion, is also known as a miscarriage. In Spanish, the phrase for miscarriage is “aborto espontáneo.” Roe v. Wade is to do with procured abortion. Yet where abortion is illegal the two types of abortion may be confused, for example, when a woman having had a miscarriage is accused of aborting her child.
Conversely, both types of abortions involve a mis-carriage, in one case, unintentionally, in the other, intentionally. To procure an abortion is to mis-carry, to carry wrongly, on purpose. These are not morally neutral terms but rather they are important distinctions and descriptions that help us to understand, to see what is happening.
Yet to really see what is happening we must see the big picture. “Pro-choice” versus “pro-life” rhetoric has obscured (until recently, perhaps) this broader context by focusing narrowly on the rights of the woman versus the rights of the unborn child. I parenthetically mention until recently, perhaps, to acknowledge recent shifts by which, on the one hand, some pro-lifers encourage a pro-woman, whole life, whole woman’s health perspective and, on the other hand, some pro-choicers encourage a focus on reproductive health care which makes a broader focus around both maternal and prenatal health, health disparities, childcare and health care, while nonetheless including abortion in this definition of “care.”
Now, what the Biden-Harris Statement gets right: in the past four years (and more) there have been attacks on “reproductive health, including the right to choose.” Some see this as a good thing, others as an injustice. In either case, the result of many of these moves has been failured to reduce abortions and possibly actual increases in infant mortality, including by abortion (e.g., declining to expand Medicaid or the Mexico City Policy). Also, a genuine commitment to “ensuring that we work to eliminate maternal and infant health disparities, increase access to contraception, and support families economically so that all parents can raise their families with dignity” can reduce abortions and in other ways, particularly eliminating health disparities and supporting families economically, foster a culture of life. Finally, “ensuring that all individuals have access to the health care they need” is a worthy aspiration, one which comports with Catholic teaching, reaffirmed by Pope Francis, that health care “”is not a consumer good, but rather a universal right, and therefore access to healthcare services cannot be a privilege.”
What the Biden-Harris Statement gets wrong: while health care includes miscarriage care and, arguably, other situations where care for the mother might involve, through the principle of double effect, a mis-carrying of the child, the Catholic Church has affirmed consistently “the moral evil of every procured abortion,” that “[d]irect abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (Catechism, 2271). In other words procured abortion is not health care. Furthermore, the “right to choose” is a euphemism that hides the reality that many (if not most) women do not consider abortion a choice but rather their only option and fails to acknowledge the responsibilities, debts, and care that we as a society owe to the pregnant woman. Absent the very elimination of health disparities and support for parents and families the statement claims are necessary any assertions in favor of choice are empty. Finally, by committing “to codifying Roe v. Wade and appointing judges that respect foundational precedents like Roe” the Administration fails to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental flaws in the Supreme Court decision itself even as buttressed by subsequent precedent (acknowledged by people on both sides of the abortion debate) and forecloses the possibilities of creating policy and law which enact reasonable limits to the practice of abortion, such as those found in other liberal democracies which see babies as a common good and therefore place legal restrictions around the practice of abortion even as it is permitted under certain circumstances or with certain waiting periods or first trimester restrictions, etc. To put it another way, the Supreme Court and by extension the Biden-Harris Administration in their unqualified defense of Roe actually impede multiracial democratic possibilities allowing for greater justice for both women and for children in their wombs.
Lastly, let me make an analogy to the immigration debate. Partisans in that debate argue between immigration and border laws, illegal entry, law breaking, and dignity of and empathy for citizens, on the one hand, and policies and laws, human rights, and dignity of and empathy for migrants, on the other. Meanwhile, many on both sides of that debate refuse to acknowledge and to do the kinds of things that will actually recognize the rights, responsibilities, and dignity of both citizens and migrants and refugees. It’s not a zero sum game, if we are willing to recognize that we belong to one another, owe one another, and are called to love one another. Until recently both U.S. political parties were largely captive to nativitist tendencies and lended bipartisan support to building unnecessary border walls (i.e., Bill Clinton), massive deportation regimes (e.g., Barack Obama), and criminalizing migrants. That is shifting.
Similarly, until recently both political parties in different ways have given lip service to making abortion “safe, legal, and rare” (e.g., Roe v. Wade was decided by a Republican-nominated SCOTUS), while doing very little to make significant improvements to material conditions for pregnant and parenting women and their offspring, nor to ensure and enshrine legal protections for unborn children, but both using the issue for scoring political points, fundraising dollars, and acquiring votes. To be clear: the violence of abortion — over 61 million lives lost in the U.S. alone since 1973 — adds to rather than ameliorates the suffering of and violence against women. (Note: As with immigration, when it comes to abortion as a Church we have our own work to do in these areas: Catholic institutions that provide childcare, parental leave, that fight for health care for all and anti-poverty measures, parishes that are truly family friendly, that truly walk with moms in need, that are willing to sacrifice ourselves, our resources, our comfort, to protect the life and dignity of women and their unborn children in our midst, to address the demand rather than merely the supply side for abortions, truly recognizing the unique and central role of the mother, etc.) Perhaps this can change as well. Sprinkled through the comments above are hints at how. I pray that it does, and not a moment too soon.
Greg Walgenbach is the Director of Life, Justice and Peace for the Diocese of Orange. The opinions expressed here are his own.
Image: White House north lawn, public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.